Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Avengers_Endgame_poster.jpgThe cultural event the whole world seems to have been waiting for has finally arrived. Avengers Endgame is finally open to the public. The secrecy can cease. The debates can begin. Disney can start raking in the billions. And I presume, on the whole, the general public can let out a collective sigh of relief. The studio hasn’t ruined the tightly shepherded franchise and for those with a share of skepticism, Avengers‘s “final chapter” does some things quite well. At the very least, it brings back the epics of old for one evening of entertainment. That in itself is enough of a compliment.

Certainly, at our most jaundice, one might contend Endgame needs to solely succeed in the area of wish fulfillment. Never has a franchise so effectively mobilized and harnessed the fervor of nerd culture around a film franchise (except maybe Star Wars and Disney owns that too).

Many of the same old grievances and world struggles are hashed out around tables and conference rooms led by the opposing ideals represented by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans). It’s true the expositional scenes with sciency jargon have the usual clumsy clunkiness. Films have never been known for their seamlessly technical dialogue.

The Russo Brother’s camera (gotta love ’em) is swirling around as much as ever. The compositions of scenes are rarely something we have time to appreciate as the images fly by with typical rapid-fire cutting. The superpowers are bigger, better, more colorful, and continue to leave the realm of reality behind for CGI visions, all the easier to rectify when you’ve made a mess of the world. Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again is so much easier with computers.

The jokes are there and the cultural references to Back to the Future and others are easy wins without any risk. Likewise, resident superhuman fighter pilot, Carol Danvers (a steely Brie Larson) seems like a convenient enough deus ex machina to piece the narrative back together in the wake of Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Are there plot holes? We’re working in convoluted increments of time so events get dicey and yet the narrative comes out mostly intact leaning into emotion rather than mere systematic logic.

It’s right here where Endgame manages to satiate our desires for — not just closure — but a meaningful denouement to this storyline. I am one of those to decry this lumbering beast at times and still as the hypocrite and movie fan that I am, there’s no way to be totally immune to this cultural force.

In the days when going to the cinema palace for a roadshow and being subjected to an earth-shattering moment seem all but behind us, this epic is the closest thing we have to such an experience in the 21st century. Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars it is not. Still, it means a great deal to this generation. It functions as its own entity — a cultural touchstone for this decade.

The story does well to tap into this zeitgeist. Here’s a forewarning for mild SPOILERS. Endgame takes the genre of a time travel heist to layer upon the world we already know. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has mostly functioned in the periphery but now he is an integral piece because it is the technology he brings, created by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), giving the remnants leftover a chance to right the past — this is their one-in-a-million chance as indicated by Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Marvel screenwriting vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do well in essentially turning their latest story into a riff on a time travel heist film. It fits the context of how they might conceivably bring their friends back — not so much by changing the past — but creating an alternate reality of sorts where things can work out the way they were meant to.

Three task forces must go after the six infinity stones in the years before Thanos got a hold of them. We flashback to 2012 in New York with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Scott Lang. This self-reflexive nature serves the story but also an increasing sense of nostalgia. Because I remember sitting in that theater having barely seen a Marvel movie before.

There I was in the first row with my friend Mike. I remember playing ultimate frisbee the afternoon before. I had marathoned Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor the previous night. College was starting in a few months. And it was the epitome of a summer blockbuster. This twofold experience is not lost on me. Both the movie and my experiences intermingle. We cannot separate them.

Then, a sullen Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with a Rip Van Winkle beard and giant beer belly must return to Asgard, witnessing its previous glory and seeing his mother (Rene Russo) only hours before she would be killed. They share a poignant moment even as the retrieval of the Infinity Stone and the presence of Jane (Natalie Portman) takes secondary importance. I didn’t mind because all I could remember was sitting in those reclining seats with Adam and Kayt during the midnight showing back in 2013.

Next, we moved on to our first meeting of The Guardians of the Galaxy. It was the summer of 2014 and I was back from college catching up with my buddy Nick. What a pleasant surprise we had watching a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a tree (Vin Diesel) jam out to Redbone. By this point, the plot feels almost unimportant. It can ride along on the dynamics of characters and my own nostalgia. In some weird way, it felt evocative of simpler times — even just fives years ago. It’s often how we manage to romanticize in hindsight, which works handsomely to the film’s advantage.

I bemoaned the fact in Infinity War, it felt like I didn’t care about these characters anymore — whether they lived or died. Endgame does its darndest to make us remember relationships, friendships, all the things making each one of these superhumans, gods, or otherwise sentient beings like us. The opening pre-credit hook is case and point. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is teaching his daughter to shoot. His wife (Linda Cardellini) is getting the food together for a family picnic. It’s the antithesis of epic. But it feels real. There is instant recognition of stakes.

There didn’t seem to be any finality to Thanos decimating the world because it was a cliffhanger. However, there is no such weakness here. It earns its ending. No after-credits tease. No drawing the story out or pulling punches to undermine the impact of the final scenes. In fact, I’ll rip off the band-aid now. Beloved characters do die and there is no turning back time for them. They’re gone. That’s okay. It feels real and their deaths have meaning. And those still living move forward with lingering sorrow but also the hope of the future. They have roots, they have family, and lives to lead beyond the confines of a film.

Tony Stark and Pepper (Gwenyth Paltrow) have a daughter now. He worries about giving up his family — his last fragment of happiness — in order to alter the earlier events. And yet if we remember the brilliant egomaniac circa 2008, Tony is radically different now. His arrogance gives way to sacrifice, even as meeting his old man makes him appreciate his own dad (John Slattery) and how similar they really are — young fathers trying to do the best for their families as imperfect human beings.

Cap changes too. His almost untouchable emblematic image of Americanism was laid to rest. Not in some anti-establishment, unpatriotic turn. Instead, he became even more human in order to romance the love of his life (and mine!) Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and cherish the dance of life together.

Chris Hemsworth’s fatty Thor might be the finest comic relief in the movie but he manages an evolution of his own as a character, realizing his lifelong need to be lauded by others will no longer rule his own life. He gives up his kingship for a worthy successor, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).

Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) sibling dynamic is of less importance but Nebula is an integral figure as she tries to reconcile her former self with what she knows she can become. Even as Thanos waits for his pursuers in the biblically inflected “Garden,” tilling the earth, his daughter must come to terms with where she falls along this gradient of good and evil.

But are you ready? For all those who’ve been waiting patiently, you will be rewarded. There is the long-awaited behemoth death match to help realize the childhood aspirations of any boy or girl who has ever dreamt themselves a superhero warding off the evils and saving the universe either vicariously through their action figures or in their own imaginations.

It’s messy, full of explosions, and spastic choreography. Why harp on the faults because if you cannot consider it with the imagination of a child, the movie probably isn’t meant for you anyway. If anything, the eye candy gives an obligatory “moment” to all the heavy hitters, big and small.

Fortuitously, the film allows the time and space to wrap up its character arcs and call back all the relationships built up over 10 years of film. In another movie, the climax would have peaked too early but this picture is making up for two movies, if not far more. There is a great deal riding on these final moments for the very reason we expect satisfaction as an audience.

What felt so exhilarating about Endgame, again, was the very finality. I know there are more projects ahead with Spider-Man, Guardians, etc. but even with characters like Cap and Iron Man, we are reminded that sometimes things cannot go back to the way they were before. Life changes as do peoples and societies.

Cap dancing in the arms of Peggy for one last time (or the first) with the melody of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” drifting through the air is enough for me. It’s the love story I always seemed to care most about and always longed to be realized in some gratifying form. Am I wrong to say this taps into some innate fairytale-like inclination? To want not just the happy ending but the reunion, the realization of lasting love.

I won’t say the Marvel franchise has always been a cutting-edge statement on the state of our world but it has been in many lives for a very long time — as an extension of our experience — sometimes it’s good and right to bring things to an end. How can you appreciate the times and memories you’ve had and really cherish them without closure? I thank Marvel for respecting its characters enough to give them this — to allow them to rest in peace — at least for the time being. It’s true that after the 22nd film we rested, briefly. Better late than never.

4/5 Stars

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster.jpgEntering into the latest Avengers blockbuster I felt like I was missing something thanks to a cold open that places us in an unfamiliar environment. It’s a feeling that has come upon me on multiple occasions previously.

Not only because as a mild enthusiast I’ve missed a stray entry here and there but I also easily forget interconnected events and after a certain point, why bother? We have come to accept there will always be another Marvel movie.

Yes, this is the culmination of 10 years that began inauspiciously with Iron Man in 2008 only to balloon into a skyrocketing phenomenon that will not disappear any time in the near future. Superheroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and so many others have reemerged as integral parts of the public consciousness. And many fans have been waiting with bated breath for this day and they will wait again and again for future movies like it. That’s an established fact. Regardless, they can breathe a sigh of relief and thoroughly enjoy themselves with this realization of all their dreams up on the big screen. It will hardly disappoint.

To describe the plot of Infinity War is almost arbitrary as SPOILERS in this day and age are guarded against like the plague but here is a nibble anyway. Thanos (Josh Brolin), a being who has long been alluded to, is finally on the scene. The opening sequence is a microcosm of what he hopes to do on a cosmic scale, leveling half of the remnant left over from Asgard.

As a supervillain, he has a vision for the world that’s not too unbelievable. He seems to have been acquainted with Thomas Malthus’ work (even unwittingly so) while holding a contorted view of what empathy is. What others term mass genocide he deems an indiscriminate mission of mercy — killing half the universe’s population will mean resources are more widely available for everyone else left alive. He proves to be one of the most interesting characters within the narrative for the very fact we have barely met him before.

Infinity Stones also become of utmost importance again as Thanos must add them to his collection so he can rise to the stature of a demigod and dictate the outcome of all life with the snap of his finger. That’s some kind of power! The stones themselves are exquisitely color coordinated. One is safeguarded by Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumbertach), another is implanted in Vision (Paul Bettany) and fiercely protected by his girlfriend the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Soul Gem brings Thanos back in contact with his two stepdaughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) with grave consequences.

Everyone else who makes an appearance (and at times a lightning-quick cameo) relies on a viewer’s running tabulation of everything up until this point in the MCU. And though you’ll probably enjoy seeing these characters that you have some familiarity with — and you even laugh throughout — there is a sense they are only vague contours. There are too many of them for the resonance to run deep and personal. It really only works if audiences have bought into the machine and already have some background with these heroes in place. The scarier thought is if viewers do not. Infinity War would be void of any meaning. All flashes of imagery, destruction, and hyper-frenetic editing. Any other actual amount of personality would be absent.

Some people live and others die but to confess I didn’t much care whether any of these characters perished is one of the most unfortunate realities of the movie. It’s not that I know they are coming back necessarily or anything of the sort. I admit to being fickle. I can’t remember why I should care about these characters. Because for some so much time has passed since I had any connection with them. To watch them become collateral damage has little resonance with me. I’m numb to it.

I won’t make allusion to archetypal literature like Hamlet or film references like Star Wars or Harry Potter because in some ways that would denigrate that material. Am I being a bit harsh? Perhaps I am. In fact, it was Hary Potter and The Deathly Hallows (2010) we have to thank for this current reality followed close behind by The Hunger Games and The Hobbit. Stories like these coincidentally begun the practice now popular in the industry.

It was no longer about simply having sequels but milking a movie for all it was worth — breaking them up into pieces — making films that were meant to be a part of a greater whole.  It’s not a film so much as a commodity. Differing from the earlier examples like The Godfather movies or even The original Star Wars trilogy — those were pictures that very much could stand on their own merit. Not that they were not enriched and more fully realized with their later installments but we could consider them alone.

Infinity War comes out of this philosophy where a film was never meant to be taken by itself. Everyone knows it. The producers, the directors, the actors, and the audience.  By now as a collective assemblage of viewers, it seems like we’ve been cowed into submission.

I for one watched the movie and never quite relished it — there was nothing all that new or novel — and yet I was never bored per se. However, even my newest favorite superhero Black Panther felt like he was now fit into the Marvel mold. Nothing surprised. Nothing ignited a deep-seated exhilaration inside me. A Stan Lee cameo comes and goes.

Though the picture does promise action and verbal sparring which it delivers handily. In fact, if you consider the screenplay by writing duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they do an admirable job with both the monumental juggling act and crosscutting of multiple storylines. The same can be said for the other dynamic duo directing, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who must perform the same type of orchestration that would have buried a single director in his grave.

Still, there is an uncanny feeling the picture is made up of two kinds of scenes. You have action sequences packaged nicely with all the trimmings and CGI to your heart’s content. Then you have in contrast many stagnant sequences with all these big names standing around in a single location talking it out usually over some point of conflict, sprinkled with a few jokes or exposition that feels all too familiar. The well-timed comic relief disguises how run-of-the-mill everything is.

That’s what’s Marvel has in many ways perfected. In this regard, there’s nothing lacking and if it’s what you signed on for now 10 years ago (without even realizing it) it takes little hesitation to say you will be satiated at least until the next Marel movie and the next installment of Infinity War in a year’s time.

However, I couldn’t help but leave the experience feeling slightly lackluster about the affair. Because in many ways Infinity War is the culmination of a generation of films and really the emblem of where Hollywood continues to head. Sure, we have yet to get the second half of our story but if this is any indication of what we have to look forward to in the future, it does look like a fairly blasé fate at that. Though the jokes and the pyrotechnics are present in full force, there is little magic — that certain amount of intangibility lifting entertainment above the mediocre and allowing it to capture our imaginations. My only question is — as someone unread in Marvel comic literature — what could the Deus ex Machina possibly be?

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Black Panther (2018)

Black_Panther_film_poster.jpgFor some Black Panther might be a stellar actioner, consequently, brought to us by a visionary director, Ryan Coogler. It’s top-tier as far as Marvel movies come; there’s little doubt. For others, I completely understand if Black Panther rocks their entire paradigm because there’s so much of note here. The box office seems to confirm that just as much as the dialogue that has been created in its wake.

What’s so revolutionary about this addition to the cinematic landscape is that this is not simply a superhero movie created by a predominantly black cast and crew but that their very heritage is so crucial to the roots of the story. The identity and complex history of Africans and African-Americans is wrapped up in the very sinews of the narrative. A whole diverse patchwork of ancestry and generations of culture is meticulously infused into the African nation of Wakanda.

Many may have forgotten that in an earlier Marvel installment the king of the 3rd world nation of Wakanda was killed in an act of terrorism. His son T’Challa proved to be next in line to the throne as long as no challengers arose from any of the five tribes that encompass the country. In such a case the two warriors take part in a ritual combat.

Far from just having intricate primordial traditions, the nation has also long-harbored an immense secret. Under the pretense of an archaic nation, they have built a technologically advanced empire around the versatile metal vibranium. In order to keep its properties protected, they have foregone sharing it with the world at large. Already you begin to see one of the primary themes running through the film. With great power comes great responsibility. How you choose to wield it is of vital importance especially when the world around you is hurting.

I have long been a fan of Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan and the partnership continues to impress. Coogler somehow managed to take a Marvel franchise film (which we’ve had too many of) and turned it into a radically personal picture. It works on both levels — arguably catering to all audiences.

His female characters are imbued with tenacity and still a capacity for great good. Lupita Nyong’go is a perfect example as the lifelong sweetheart of the ascending king T’Challa because she has left her homeland to help the oppressed in less fortunate lands. She jokes that she would make a phenomenal queen one day because she’s stubborn but it’s the truth.

Meanwhile, the king’s mother (Angela Basset) is stately; caring deeply for her children while his sister (Letitia Wright) is feisty and blessed with the ingenuity of an inventor. She’s the Wakandan Q if you will. And there’s Okoye (Danai Gurira) the fearless leader of the all-female royal guard. Far more than an assassin, she is guided by a sense of honor and loyalty that splits her right down the middle.

Many people will be happily surprised by a soundtrack that synthesizes original music by Kendrick Lamar with a score by Ludwig Goranson (Community) infused with distinctly African instrumentation. It makes for a satisfying marriage in music. But no less impressive are the intricate costumes and set designs which develop this appealing aesthetic of the old with the new. Coogler’s team seems to have a very keen awareness of both which is refreshing.

When Black Panther falters at all the problem is simply due to repetition. After 17 other entries, we can hardly blame a film like this for doing something that’s seemingly derivative even momentarily. It’s inevitable. Because if you’ve seen one fight scene between two agile, armored superhumans you’ve seen them all to some extent.

And yet this picture does so much more within that framework that’s moving because there’s a certain ambition and an innate understanding of what movies are capable of. They can help us cull through crises while still maintaining the exhilarating guise of a superhero action flick. It’s true that at times it feels like we are watching a Bond film only rejuvenated with more diverse characterization.

Like the best films in that franchise or any other really, the villains are noticeably tempered in a very particular way that is stimulating. Yes, multiple bad guys and when I say that I mean that each has unique shading giving us different looks. Andy Serkis is the chortling international arms dealer who seems small scale and yet he’s made dangerous. There’s a distinct edge to him.

Even more important is Erik Warmonger (Michael B. Jordan) because he acts as T’Challa’s character foil. As we find out, they have a lot more in common than they would have been led to believe except Warmonger has more sinister intentions. The joy of Jordan’s performance is that the character is high-functioning, charismatic, and actually poses a threat as we see on multiple occasions. But no matter how twisted or misguided he might seem there’s still some level on which we can understand his lifelong resentment. Also, let me just say it now. From his clothes to his swagger, he just looks cool…and supremely confident.

Meanwhile, fellow tribesman such as M’Baku (Winston Duke) and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) do not necessarily have sworn allegiances staked out and so that gives them some agency to shift the tectonics of the story this way or that. Again, they have a certain amount of power that gives them an undeniable presence.

Like The Winter Soldier or Civil War (arguably my favorite Marvel entries thus far), the villains are compelling because they invariably feel planted in the real world or better yet they’re made up of friends and family. There’s nothing more disconcerting than people who aren’t villains at all and yet they still go in opposition of you.

Thus, Ryan Coogler has succeeded in constructing a layered story that might be one of the few Marvel films I would gladly pay a second viewing to. It hinges on so many issues with consequences for our contemporary landscape. Again, with great power comes great responsibility.

It deals with the afterlife as represented by the ancestral hunting grounds where first T`Challa and then Erik commune with their fathers to receive insight. For the former, it means reconciling with his father’s own failures during his lifetime so he might not make the same mistake. For the latter, it means connecting with his own father about their joint Wakandan heritage which Erik never knew first-hand living in America.

Black Panther calls into question themes of isolationism as much as it does a complicated history of colonialism. Look no further than the African artifacts exhibit in the History Museum and you can plainly see that we are still grappling with the same issues planted in the same past. Far from dismissing it, we would do well to continue to entertain a dialogue. The roles that museums, archivists, and archaeologists play in all of this are important too. Suddenly, even for a brief instant, I’m starting to second-guess Indy’s obdurate assertion that artifacts belong in a museum. Where do we draw the lines on such an issue while not unwittingly promoting colonialist traditions? I don’t quite know.

The final words of Warmonger linger in my mind as well:

T`Challa: “We can still heal you…”

Warmonger: “Why, so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”

His words sting, as they should because so much truth dwells right there. I have always struggled to reconcile those very things because for being a nation made of immigrants the African-Americans are nearly the only ones who did not come to The Promise Land of their own volition. The handprints of such a reality can still be spotted in our world today.

There are deep roots that are set in place. In the History Museum corridors you see documentation of a muddied past of colonialism. Then, in Oakland (Coogler’s hometown) along with basketball and Public Enemy you see obvious signs of social decay and problematic issues of drugs and gun violence.

That it is actually put out there is nearly a relief and a necessity. However, and this is a big however, there seems to be an underlying hopefulness that we can somehow live together. Marcus Garvey once proposed blacks recolonize their native country and that in itself brings up other issues of cultural identity.

Erik Warmonger is right at the center of that with African descent and yet longheld ties to American society. What do we label him? I’m not sure we can. I’m not sure we need to. That’s for the individual. Regardless, it’s a work in progress. Messy no doubt but hope is still present.

Like Fruitvale Station (2013) before it, being rich in black culture by no means that the film is completely exclusive in the same regard. Far from simply being a token white person Martin Freeman is allowed to be a hero just like his counterparts and anyways maybe for once it’s okay for the Caucasian characters to take a momentary back seat if only to allow other voices to speak.

What we are left with as King T’Chala addresses the United Nations is not the sense that one people group is better than another or the new should overthrow those who have long been in power but that we should find those points of intersection — the things that unify us.

“Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

It’s a fitting summation because this is a film that draws up different tribes, turns people against each other nearly in an instant, while constantly rearranging factions and who holds the keys to the kingdom. If it’s resolved in the end it’s only a fragile peace at best and if we are to maintain that we need far more than vibranium. We need a heavy dose of human understanding and empathy.

We can acknowledge our past failures as a society but must never allow them to shackle us for good. Mistakes are meant to be learned from. It’s when we’re not willing to learn and to change that dire straits look inevitable. I hope for our sake that the film’s call-to-action might still stand true.

But the film itself is also an imperative to take deep abiding pride in your heritage and who you are as a human being — unique just as you are. Thus, it seems utterly misguided to desire a future world where we do not see color but instead, we might yearn for a day when everyone can look at the rich strains of human diversity and proclaim “It is very good.” Where we can survey that same world and see that every color, creed, and tongue is finally one tribe instead of many.

4/5 Stars

42 (2013)

e3a98-42_film_posterStarring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford, this biopic chronicles the life of Jackie Robinson, the extraordinary man and athlete who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.  

The film opens and Robinson is playing for the all-black Kansas City Monarchs because the big leagues are still segregated and prejudice still reigns supreme. However, Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers has ideas of his own. He sends a scout to offer Robinson a contract that Robinson accepts and he finds himself with the Montreal Dodgers. After the good news Robinson proposes to his girlfriend Rachel and they get married soon after. The two of them head down to spring training, and with the help of a black journalist Wendell Smith, Robinson begins to settle in. 

Despite being the only black man on an all-white squad, his athletic ability and speed lead to a successful season. Although there is some initial backlash it seems like Rickey’s “noble experiment” might be working. The next spring training in Panama opens and the real trouble begins. The Dodger squad signs a petition vowing not to play with a black man. Then, to add insult to injury Leo Durocher is prohibited from managing. 

It is a rough start to Robinson’s career in the big leagues, and soon it becomes obvious that this is just the beginning. Discrimination is rampant. Robinson is taunted, beaned, spiked, and threatened with death. But in agreement with Rickey, Robinson vows not to fight back. Instead, he beats his adversary on the field. This mindset, along with the support of his wife, and several teammates, lead Jackie to success. He took home the Rookie of the Year and the Dodgers, in turn, won the pennant. 

Fittingly, the film closes with postscripts that describe number 42’s impact on the game. It seems that some have said that from a film standpoint it is unexciting or unremarkable storytelling and that well night might be true, but with a story as good and important as this, I don’t think it matters that much. Fans, including me don’t care. This film is meaningful, because although I knew a lot about Robinson’s life, I never really thought about people like Ralph Branca or Ben Chapman in this light. They are more than just statistics in a baseball almanac. They were men who played a part in this story, whether good or bad. I have always considered Jackie Robinson one of my greatest heroes, not only because I am a Dodger fan but because he was a remarkable man and this movie simply reinforced that notion. Here’s to you number 42.
 
3.5/5 Stars